Jerry Lee Lewis – Live at the Star Club, Hamburg

Jerry Lee Lewis – Live at the Star Club, Hamburg
Released January, 1963

Holy smoke, this is one of the most vivacious live albums I have ever heard and definitely gives good ol’ James Brown a run for his money! Jerry Lee Lewis didn’t leave any fuel in the tank at this performance with his backing band ‘The Nashville Teens’, and the crowd certainly didn’t either, going wild for the rock ‘n’ roll legend.

Jerry Lee Lewis was born in Ferriday, Louisiana to a working-class family. His family was supportive of his career progression from a young age, with his parents even mortgaging their farm to buy him an upright piano. Needless to say this was the greatest investment they could have ever made, as his career only continued to blossom from that point. Lewis was somewhat of a musical genius; having next to no formal musical education, he mostly taught himself and claimed to have ‘god-given talent’, and that his fingers had brains inside of them.

When this album was recorded in 1964, Lewis was in the midst of making somewhat of a comeback. He had suffered a great slump in popularity following the public unveiling that he had married his cousin (twice removed) who was 13 and clearly underage.  Following his shunning from the music charts he spent many months on the road playing endless one-night only shows and rekindling the public’s trust. He later went on to expand his musical style, writing country and western songs, which became some of his most popular songs and helped improve his profile until he was accepted back into the realms of the great once more, in the mid to late 60’s.

As the name suggests, “Live at the Star Club” is a collection of live tracks recorded at Lewis’ concert in Hamburg, Germany in 1964. The 16-track album was recorded in 2 sets, however the tapes of 2 tracks are said to have been lost. Throughout the intense performance, Lewis re-visits his rock ‘n’ roll hits but also slips a few country and western-style numbers in for good measure. I would love to have been a fly on the wall for this performance; listening to the helter-skelter way in which ‘The Killer’ rocks out on-stage, it’s safe to say that this was one of the wildest rock ‘n’ roll performances of its time, in fact of all time. To say that Lewis was a great pianist is somewhat of an understatement, listen to “Live at the Star Club” and you will experience some of the most energetic boogie woogie piano solos the world has ever seen. Not one key on that piano remained un-used. Lewis surges into a rollercoaster-ride of a performance, and you get the feeling that the wheels are going to fall off at any moment, that the band is only just keeping time with The Killer. A great example of the chaos is ‘High School Confidential’. Lewis just goes for it, goes completely nuts and his singing is not even in time with his own piano part. The drummer is completely out of time with him by the time the song comes to a crashing end.

For me, “Live at the Star Club” wasn’t exactly relaxing to listen to, I felt a bit exhausted by the end of each listen as it was just so full-on with Lewis’ energy. Having said that, it’s a fantastic insight into The Killer’s style, his stage-presence and his overwhelming influence on styles such as rock ‘n’ roll, rockabilly, and country and western. I particularly enjoyed listening to the cover of Ray Charles’ ‘What’d I say’.  It was truly rockin’ and the piano playing on this one was good to epic proportions. You can’t help wondering how one person could do so much on the piano at one time, with only two hands! No wonder he was known to play on his feet, sitting at a stool would have been impossible to achieve that level of energy in your performance.  “Live at the Star Club” got a mention in the book “1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die”, and is cited by many as ‘one of the greatest live rock ‘n’ roll albums of all time’ – and for good reason, this album shows you why Lewis is up there with the likes of legends Carl Perkins and Elvis for his intrinsic influence on rockabillly and rock ‘n’ roll, and his amazing performance style in general.

Jerry Lee Lewis’ prowess as a charismatic and talented performer is captured perfectly on this amazing live album. He is accompanied by British band, The Nashville Teens, who do their best to keep up with Lewis throughout the performance. They were actually in the middle of a two week residency at Hamburg’s Star Club and found themselves backing up The Killer for ‘one night only’. Lewis hadn’t had a hit for over six years, largely due to the public outcry over him outrageously marrying his thirteen year old cousin. A firm believer in himself (he manages to name-check himself on nearly every track), Lewis’ bitterness at losing his shot at being The King fills every note and piano key. When Lewis plays ‘High School Confidential’ it feels like the end of the set, not the third song in (second track on the CD). It has all the energy of an act winding up the night and the crowd even start chanting “Jerry! Jerry!”. However, Lewis is just getting started. He rips through rock classics ‘Good Golly, Miss Molly’, ‘Long Tall Sally’ and ‘Money (That’s What I Want)’ like they were scraps of their era, easily chomping through the music. When they do ‘Great Balls of Fire’ and ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’, two of Lewis’ biggest hits from the 1950’s, the crowd erupts into a frenzy. Capable of taking it easy, their version of Hank Williams’ ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ is just marvelous. The highlight for me is Lewis’ take on Ray Charles’ ‘What’d I Say’ which features false endings, tempo changes and the wildest vocal I’ve heard him perform. The shambolic nature of it exemplifies the spirit of rock and roll perfectly; the heart and soul of the number outweighs any technical discrepancies. Highly recommended to every music lover.

In the late 50s Lewis was at the top of his game and everyone loved him. Then in the early 60s he married his 13 year old cousin and overnight he was a nobody. In Europe they didn’t care so much so he continued to gig over there. The beauty of “Live at the Star Club, Hamburg” is you can hear all of that rage and frustration as he takes it out on the keys. It’s like he’s raging against everyone and everything that said he couldn’t or shouldn’t. The whole affair is actually pretty shambolic but it works because it’s rock n roll. That’s what rock n roll is, isn’t it… it isn’t neat and tidy with perfect edges. It’s the energy and passion that the singer and band bring to it that makes it rock n roll, and Lewis bloody tears the roof off on this album. There is only one ballad and even that cracks quite a pace. You can hear the band struggling just to keep up with him. Stand out tracks for me are the bluesy ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’, the self congratulatory ‘Lewis Boogie’ and the piano intro to ‘Money (That’s What I Want)’ is one of my favourite things on the album. Jerry Lee Lewis once stated in response to being kicked out of his Catholic School as a teen, “You know it’s strange, the same music that they kicked me out of school for is the same kind of music they play in their churches today. The difference is, I know I am playing for the devil and they don’t.” I’m not sure exactly what Lewis is channelling on this album but it is certainly one of the greatest live albums this listener has ever heard.

Great Balls of Fire. That was the extent of my knowledge of Jerry Lee Lewis up till the this point. I knew it was a classic rock and roll song, but I had no idea how much Lewis actually rocked. “Live at the Star Club, Hamburg” is a balls to the wall, all out, 110% concert, smashed out by Lewis and his band, The Nashville Teens (who were, weirdly, English). This definitely sounds like a gig I would have wanted to been at. Lewis sounds like he gives every little bit he’s got, screaming and pounding on his keys. You hear his enthusiasm and energy in ‘What’d I Say’. Even though he’s just repeating “What’d I Say” an awful lot, he doesn’t get bored with it and keeps everything at the same high tempo. Gee the crowds loved ‘Great Balls Of Fire’ didn’t they? It comes and goes quickly, but the audience got right into it, and really showed their approval when he intros it!One of my favourite tracks on this album is ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’. I really liked the drumming during the verses and the constant, frantic keys – though that’s a feature common to all the songs! Is it quite egotistical to have a song named after yourself? The ‘Lewis Boogie’? I guess when you’ve got the crowd eating out of the palm of your hand you can do whatever you like. “Live at the Star Club, Hamburg” is an album of an amazing concert. I hope the concert went longer than the recording, because I’d have never wanted it to end! I bet Jerry Lee was knackered after it. Especially after the psychotic ending to ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’! That’s going out on a high! Have a rest, JLL. You earned after this one!

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